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Arts & Entertainment

How Dallas Can Be the Next Leader In Sustainable Fashion

Fashion Group International of Dallas and SMU Professor Maryann Cairns are spearheading the city's initiatives in eco-friendly fashion.
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Photos by Kristi and Scot Redman

The fashion industry in Dallas is pioneering initiatives and programs to support the next generation of environmentally conscious fashion professionals locally.

In recent years, the industry at large has laid the groundwork to encourage sustainability by reducing the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions exacerbated by the materials the designers use. Locally, Fashion Group International of Dallas and the Cairns Lab at Southern Methodist University are emblematic of an encouraging shift to make fashion sustainable in Dallas. FGI has launched scholarship funds for environmentally-minded designers while SMU is putting data behind the problem to identify solutions.

Spearheaded by Professor Maryann Cairns, an environmental anthropologist at SMU, the research center aims to quantify the impact the fashion industry has on the environment. Cairns and her team hope to use this work to educate the next generation of sustainable fashion consumers, designers, and other stakeholders. The professor’s lab is unique to Dallas, an interdisciplinary approach that brings together engineers, data scientists, supply chain modelers, and journalists to find solutions to address how the industry’s decisions affect water pollution and landfill waste.

According to Cairns, the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing each year. Her lab is working to encourage consumers to think critically about their consumption habits in relation to human labor and the environment.

“If you see a t-shirt for five dollars, I encourage you to think about how long it would take to make a t-shirt, and ask if five dollars is a reasonable amount to pay for all the environmental resources and human labor it took to construct that garment,” the professor says. Fast fashion brands—such as Forever21, Fashion Nova, Pretty Little Thing—engage in unethical labor practices to produce trendy clothes, which results in tons of plastic waste. A high cost for low prices.

“It comports to fast trends, is created unethically—often relying on low-paid, unsafe labor, and is often made of plastic,” Cairns says. “Sustainability is a focus on what matters. So, as you’re buying clothing, I encourage you to consider the people, the environmental resources, and the potential future that the garment encompasses—do you see what matters to you represented there?”

Professor Cairns acknowledges the industry’s social inequalities: “How has social inequality made it such that many people potentially cannot afford clothing that is made ethically and well, for instance?” Her work explores how the ways clothing is made excludes certain groups of consumers, whether by size or ability: “How have some groups benefitted at the expense of others?” she asks.

Societal shifts toward environmentalism and social activism, largely influenced by millennials and Gen Z, have resulted in some major corporations leading sustainable fashion initiatives. Neiman Marcus put together an environmentally-focused team whose job it is to incorporate sustainability into the luxury retailer’s business practices.

“The lion’s share of responsibility in changing the industry might very well lie with corporations and fashion decision-makers—including designers, etc. We need a true sea change in the industry,” Cairns said.

Similar to the professor’s advocacy and research efforts to change the fashion industry, FGI Dallas created two new scholarship categories this year: Apparel Sustainability in Fashion Design and Digital Sustainability in Store Design or Fashion Portfolio. These are pathways to hands-on mentorship and funding for the emergent generation of sustainable fashion designers here in Dallas.

The recent transition to eco-friendly practices represent a need for specialized education and training in sustainability. Fashion programs at local universities, such as the University of North Texas and SMU, provide their students with the training needed to evolve into environmentally friendly designers. FGI is putting money behind it.

Lela Orr, the founder of the Dallas-based eco-luxury brand FERRAH, is one of the designers ushering in sustainability on a local level. The label only uses natural, ethical, and locally-sourced materials for its products. Orr launched her first collection in 2015. By 2018, she had a new storefront at Trinity Groves and was competing in the 17th season of “Project Runway.”

Cairns believes the collaborative efforts of funding initiatives like the FGI Dallas scholarships, environmentally friendly fashion lines like FERRAH, and academic fashion programs at the region’s universities have the potential to transform Dallas into a leader of sustainable fashion.

“We’re in a unique position in Dallas because we’re home to some of the biggest brands in fashion—many of which are still doing ‘fashion as usual’— but they may well be amazing allies in the movement toward sustainable processes if they take a leadership role,” she said. “I believe in collaboration and cooperation. And I believe that Dallas can be a place where sustainable fashion happens. Not only that—I think that Dallas can create change that extends far beyond Texas. The fashion industry needs examples of how to do “sustainable” well, and if we can offer that, we could change the world.”

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